Hangry, a case for regular eating

Blog, Written by Sophie Corbett

.As a child, I frequently observed a common pattern of behaviour in my Dad. We would go out for the day, perhaps to a theme park or to the shops. At a predictable time in the afternoon my Dad would become irritable and snappy. We soon associated this behaviour with Dad being hungry or ‘hangry’. For me this raised the question: Why do we get hangry?

This question was later answered during my training to become an Eating Disorder Dietitian. Because the concept of hangriness is also applicable to the mental presentation of patients with Eating Disorders. When discussing the cognitive impacts of Eating Disorders, we often rely on the foundational findings of the Minnesota study.

The Minnesota study

The Minnesota research study was conducted on a group of 36 conscientious objectors of war who volunteered to participate in a twelve month experiment looking at the impact of starvation. In the context of the war, there was widespread starvation and the researchers were looking at how they could minimise the impact of starvation and help those recover from malnutrition. They found that the participants became depressed and irritable, had obsessive thoughts about food, lost much of their hair, had a much reduced metabolic rate, became sensitive to the cold and struggled sleeping. Many of the symptoms that we associate with restrictive eating disorders are actually symptoms of starvation.

The Minnesota study is an extreme example of the impacts of starvation. Newer evidence shows that even short-term food restriction in someone of a healthy weight can result in more rigid thinking (hence, ‘hangry’). This can be explained by the drop in blood glucose when we have not eaten for a while. Psychology Professor, Prof Francesco Leri explains “Hypoglycemia is a strong physiological and psychological stressor”.

How dietary restriction can cause hangriness

Let’s consider the 5:2 diet. A common diet whereby a dieter eats normally for 5 days of the week and dramatically reduces their food intake/ fasts, on 2 days of the week. Research shows that those who are on the 5:2 diet, when fasting have a slower and less accurate cognitive performance. Looking at the long term impact on mental health there is evidence to indicate that skipping breakfast could result in increased risk of depression.

When I talk to my patients about their cognitions, I highlight their symptoms of starvation syndrome. I often tell them it is like they are hangry, but on an extreme level. This is why regular eating for those in recovery (and for everyone) is so important for wellbeing.

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There’s help available

Dietitian SophieIf you’re struggling with a disordered relationship with food and exercise, know that you don’t have to face it alone. Professional support is crucial for your journey towards recover. I am a registered dietitian specialising in eating disorder recovery. I work with a team of highly specialised dietitians in this area. We can provide personalised guidance and support to help individuals like you establish a healthy relationship with food and exercise.

Get in touch here.

Sophie x